I don’t know how many of you are regular readers of Salon, but last week there was a letter to Cary Tennis in his Since You Asked column that really caught my attention.
I get grossed out when I hear, “I’m a mom!”
I’m about to be a mom, actually, but I don’t want to just be a mom.
By Cary Tennis
Feb. 01, 2008 | Dear Cary,
I’m a 30-year-old, happily married woman on the brink of having children, and I have a problem. I’m grossed out by moms!
It’s not the idea of a woman with children that bothers me, or the thought of myself being one. It’s just the whole concept of identifying oneself as a mom that I find a bit icky. It’s this dialogue specifically:
“So, Lucy, tell us a little bit about yourself.”
“Well (giggles), I’m a mom.”
Gross! How about, “I live in Houston with my husband and children and I spend my free time gardening/writing/selling marital aids/whatever”?
As my friends have gotten married and started having children, I’ve heard this kind of thing coming out of their mouths. I realize that being a mother is fun and rewarding, and all-consuming at times, but why does it have to be the primary identifying factor in some women’s lives? I would think being a mother is sort of a family affair, and making it your calling card, so to speak, is no more appropriate than saying, “I’m a wife.”
Who cares! You got married and had children! What else do you bring to the table?
I’m just worried that I will end up having children and one day understanding that way of thinking, or even making motherhood my primary identifying factor. I don’t plan on working in an office when I have small children — I want to be at home and my husband agrees — but I’ll be damned if rearing children is all I’ll do for five to 10 years. I’ll go a step further to say that if I didn’t do something else with my life, I wouldn’t be a good example to my kids, especially if they are girls. It’s all a little too “Feminine Mystique” for me. I’m not saying mothers need to be working and earning a salary, but just that I feel like women should have something meaningful in their lives beyond the biological.
How can I get over this ick factor when I hear other women identify themselves this way, and how can I avoid becoming one?
Almost Pregnant With Possibility
Dear Almost Pregnant,
I am completely unqualified to advise you on this matter.
However, one thing you say interests me: You point out that one rarely hears a contemporary woman qualify herself principally as a wife. At the risk of sounding insufficiently feminist for present company, and speaking in purely subjective emotional terms, I must say it would be strangely gratifying to hear my wife qualify her role in the world as principally that of being my wife. But that is a rather remote possibility, as my position in my wife’s life is on the contrary rather like that of the man one sees about the neighborhood picking up bottles and cans — one senses that he is performing certain duties yet wishes somehow he could find a better way of going about it.
I clearly see the historical and political difficulties of entertaining such a wish. It is hardly the way forward for masses of starving Afghans. Still, we probably all dream of being central to someone — it is the infantile jackpot repeated, after all. So, having nothing, as I said, to say directly to your question, let me now briefly address only the heterosexual married men in the audience. You women, you just skip to the next paragraph. That’s right. Move along. That’s good. Now. This is for men only: Men! Be honest now! Has what this letter writer suggests ever occurred to you — that while mothers often enthusiastically define themselves as moms, one rarely hears a wife say, upon being asked for an account of herself, “Well, I’m (giggle) a wife”!? Have you ever heard a wife say that? Have you ever dreamed of its occurring?
OK, that was a sidebar with men only. Now, back to the question. (And may I say, those women among you who cheated — you know who you are! — you are not to be trusted!)
All foregoing protestations of ignorance being hereby incorporated, I will at least suggest this: Concentrate less on what the mothers around you say, and more on what you yourself hope to accomplish in the raising of your own children. Observe carefully the things people say that cause you anguish and distress, but do not assume that your symptoms amount to social analysis. There’s no telling what they mean. Your symptoms may constitute that subsection of the personal that is decidedly not political but on the contrary wholly idiosyncratic and quite irrelevant to the affairs of the nation. It’s hard to tell. We’re all a little nuts if you ask me.
And now, for the umpteenth time, I back away from the discussion and creep toward the fire to light my pipe and stare blankly into the abyss of my coffee.
OK, not to belabor it, though, and recognizing that this wheel is spinning rather absurdly now, I will also say, as to having acute reactions to possibly harmless phenomena: I myself am highly symptomatic; I am filled with petty reactions to the most harmless and trivial of other people’s behavior; my preferred techniques of communicating such include emphatic eye-rolling, a sudden little cough, faux-involuntary tics of the face, a nervous, down-looking glance, and a facial expression that gives the appearance that I am about to begin whistling.
I also confess to occasionally wanting to kick strollers, throw car seats into bushes and snatch the pacifiers out of babies’ mouths. But, like I say, this is not a political platform; rather I consider it my (till now) wholly private pathology of misplaced aggression.
My one otherwise irrational response that I do feel has social merit, however, is the keen desire I feel to grab the pruning sheers when I see a child on a leash. No person should be attached to any other person by a leash except at the Folsom Street Fair. On that I am firm.
As to the rest, please have at it, those of you with relevant experience and knowledge. I fear I have already done my part.
This letter truly fascinated me because for decades (and yes I’ll admit it), I would scratch my head when some women answered the “tell me about yourself” question with either “I’m a mom” or “I’m married.” I don’t remember being grossed out about this reply, as the letter writer is (but then again, I might have stronger feelings in my younger, more headstrong days). Yet I did find it strange that motherhood or marriage would be the first thing that would come out of these women’s mouths when asked about who they are.
Those of you who know and love me realize that the day I reply to the question of “tell me about yourself” with a simple answer of “I’m a mom” or “I’m AdoringHusband’s wife” is the day after I’ve had a frontal lobotomy. There is so much to who I am beyond motherhood or wifehood. Those are both critical features of my life, but in terms of defining me, they are only part of the story. I define myself not by my relationships, but by what I do, my beliefs, and the curious concoction that is my mind.
Were someone to ask me to tell him/her about me, my answer would probably go something like this:
I’m a physician specializing in the care and feeding of adolescents. I’m a liberal, womanist, ethnocentric, strongblackwoman in recovery from doing too much, feeling too much, and taking on everyone else’s pain. Thinking is one of my favorite pastimes, along with knitting, sudoku, reading, and playing hidden object games. I’m a diva, a zealot, an empath and a survivor of trauma. I love with my whole heart and my devotion to those in my life knows no end. My husband and my daughter are my greatest blessings. This is Liana in 30 seconds or less…
Somehow I can’t see myself rocking the “I’m a mom”
There were the new moms who basically said, when you have a child, you will be defined by motherhood because you won’t have time to do anything else. The other moms who said, hello, having a child doesn’t mean indentured servitude. Take time for yourself and have interests other than your child. The feminist men who asked why her husband wasn’t choosing to stay home with the kids if that was important. And the bristling moms who were like, get off your high horse.
Interestingly, as far as I read, no one touched Cary Tennis’s comments about wishing his wife would define herself as his wife. I was like, Cary, please get over yourself.
And as always, when I write some of my womanist/feminist beliefs, I must add the caveat that all I can speak from is my own perspective and for me, I could in no way define myself only by my relationships and not by the part of me that exists independently of my relationships. Yet I completely respect the right of all people to define themselves in any manner they see fit.
So my internet friends, what do you think about this Salon letter? Let’s discuss!
(And sorry about the trouble with the comments running out of the boxes. I’m working on fixing that.)